Judge ordered drivers back to work, but only after shutdown of 28 days
November 23, 2008 5:00 AM
PAT driver Cindy Hoston of West Mifflin displays the colors to passersby on Lebanon Road in 1992.
By Jonathan D. Silver Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Allegheny County's last transit strike, in 1992, spanned an excruciating 28 days, ending only when a no-nonsense judge ordered bus and trolley drivers back to work and negotiators back to the bargaining table.
But so deep were the divides among the parties -- Port Authority Transit on one side and the Amalgamated Transit Union's Local 85 on the other -- it still took eight more months to hammer out a contract. And that happened only 20 minutes before the late Commonwealth Court Senior Judge Silvestri Silvestri was to impose a settlement.
Fast forward 16 years, and labor and management once again are at odds, locked into a seemingly intractable dispute that could have dire consequences on a region in which 230,000 people ride mass transit every day.
Negotiations have stagnated. And local business and community groups are practically taking it for granted that come Dec. 1 -- the date Port Authority plans to implement a unilateral contract that may or may not be legal -- nearly 2,400 transit drivers, mechanics and other hourly workers will not be on the job.
William W. Millar, the Port Authority's executive director during the 1992 strike, sees similarities between then and now.
Both disputes, he said, involve management taking a long-term approach to controlling costs and putting the agency on a sound fiscal footing and labor seeking the best deal for its membership.
Mr. Millar said he did what he had to do at the time, and he believes Larry Klos, the union's president during the strike, did the same.
"I understood the position he was in. Not that my position was a bed of roses," Mr. Millar said last week.
Nor was the public's.
"Every day I thought about the people who were not getting to work or who were suffering in other ways," Mr. Millar said. "The fundamental point that a lot of innocent Pittsburghers were hurt during that strike remains true. I felt very badly about that."
Those four weeks of inconvenience and ire in 1992 evoked some of the best and worst of people in a time of crisis.
While some strikers burned Mr. Millar in effigy in the ugliest made-for-TV moment of the walkout, then-Pittsburgh Mayor Sophie Masloff had her police chauffeur pick up stranded urbanites daily on her commute to work.
"My heart went out to them because some of them were so desperate," Mrs. Masloff said.
She recalled the strike as a difficult period for city dwellers -- and wonders whether another rough patch is around the corner.
"Of course, I lived through it, and it was a nightmare. I had hoped it would be averted now, although it doesn't look like it," said Mrs. Masloff, a bus rider herself. "I think at the time it was the worst thing that could have happened to the city."
The Port Authority is trying to rein in skyrocketing health insurance and pension costs for future retirees, expenses so burdensome that the agency will run out of money and have to shut down next month if nothing is done to bring them under control.
'King's Bench' powers
Earlier this month, the union voted 508-22 in a secret ballot against using a state-appointed fact-finder's recommendations as the basis for a new contract. The findings had been accepted in September by the Port Authority board but rejected by the union's executive board.
The opposite was true 16 years ago. Then the union embraced a fact finder's recommendations, but the Port Authority rejected them as too costly.
With a strike vote of 2,018-94, about 2,700 union members walked off their jobs at 12:01 a.m. March 16, 1992. They had been working without a contract since Dec. 1. Wages and pensions were the main issues. It was the first strike since a five-day walkout in 1976.
"This is a strike against the Port Authority, not the people of Allegheny County," Mr. Klos told members before the vote.
But it was the people of Allegheny County who suffered the most. Although troubles were minimal early on, they mounted as the strike dragged on, as disaffected commuters got up extra early to trudge, hitchhike, and car pool through darkness and inclement weather.
In late March, Mrs. Masloff approved using a legal gambit based on an obscure corner of the law.
"We had meetings every day, practically, about the strike because it was so disastrous," Mrs. Masloff said. "We researched every angle that we could until we came across this law."
The city petitioned the state Supreme Court to invoke its seldom-used "King's Bench" powers, allowing it to leapfrog over lower courts and take jurisdiction of a case.
The architect of the strategy was Joseph Sabino Mistick, a Duquesne University law professor who was then Mrs. Masloff's executive secretary.
Mr. Mistick recalled that he stumbled across the provision while researching a prisoner's rights case in the early 1980s. Roughly a decade later, the mayor asked him for ideas during the strike.
"This upset her terribly because there were some very sad, some scary and some almost tragic stories evolving from this bus strike," Mr. Mistick said. "She had asked me if there was anything I thought we could do to resolve this matter. My initial thought was I didn't think there was anything, but I said I would look at it."
Over drinks at a Downtown bar, as Mr. Mistick and friends were discussing the strike, he recalled his King's Bench case.
The next day he approached the mayor.
" 'There's one thing we can try,' " Mr. Mistick said he told her. "'It's remote. It's little known. But I've used it before with limited success.' "
When the petition was filed, the courthouse "exploded," Mr. Mistick said. Angry phone calls were made, with the Port Authority and county officials chewing out their city counterparts.
"What the mayor did was throw a wild card in the middle of it. The union didn't know where they stood. Management didn't know where it stood. And it created chaos in the process," Mr. Millar said.
But the tactic worked. The Supreme Court took the case and voted 6-0 that the city had legal standing to intervene in the strike -- a matter that had been in dispute.
The Supreme Court handed the case to Commonwealth Court, which assigned it to Judge Silvestri, the same jurist who ordered an end to the 1976 strike.
The city eventually put the 30 worst hard-luck cases it had collected on display in Judge Silvestri's courtroom to convince him that the strike constituted enough of a public disruption for him to end it.
There was, for instance, the blind mother of five who could not get her children to medical appointments; the Shadyside optometrist who testified that the strike had "annihilated" his 136-year-old Downtown business; and the dialysis patient who hitchhiked to treatment.
"For most people who commuted it was an inconvenience. For people in stores who looked for the daily traveler who came in to shop, it was a financial hardship because that certainly wasn't happening. And for a good number of people, the ones whose stories ended up in Silvestri's court, it was horrible," said Benjamin Hayllar, Mrs. Masloff's finance director and the person she appointed to coordinate the city's response to the strike.
On Friday, April 10, 1992 Judge Silvestri issued a permanent injunction and ordered PAT workers back to their jobs the following Monday. Grueling months of negotiations followed.
Asked in hindsight if she did the right thing, Mrs. Masloff was immediate in her answer.
"Absolutely," she said. "Everybody I met on the street was so happy, so relieved. I was glad to see these people back riding."
At the time Mrs. Masloff was roundly criticized for the move. The union felt emasculated. The Port Authority thought negotiations should take their course. And some politicians -- including the late county Commissioner Chairman Tom Foerster, who was heavily involved in fostering negotiations early on -- thought she was grandstanding.
Hard feelings persist
"She stuck her nose in a business she had no business sticking her nose in," Mr. Millar said.
At the time, Mr. Millar called the three-year agreement both sides finally agreed upon "responsible," and said, "It's fair to our employees, the taxpayers and our riders."
But Mr. Millar views Mrs. Masloff's move as ultimately blocking true fiscal reform at the agency.
"Unfortunately, because of Mayor Masloff's intervention, the issues were not resolved, were left to fester, and continue to this day," Mr. Millar said. "In the end there was an agreement, but it was under great pressure by the court, and it meant an awful lot of stuff on both sides was put on the floor."
Laughing off Mr. Millar's analysis is Mr. Mistick, who called it "groundless." He described Mrs. Masloff's petition as "one of her finest moments in public life."
"We've had 16 years of viability, of transportation serving the masses. I would think the Bill Millars and the Tom Foersters of the world were miffed about Sophie's standing up for the people of the city," Mr. Mistick said.
Perhaps the most important question of the day is whether Mayor Luke Ravenstahl will follow in his predecessor's footsteps. He is keeping quiet about his plans for what the Law Department might do in the event of a strike.
Mr. Mistick said he believes the administration should start gearing up for a fight using history as its guide.
One advantage for the Ravenstahl administration: Solicitor George Specter was deputy solicitor under Mrs. Masloff in 1992.
"If I were in the mayor's office right now, I would make certain that the solicitor's office was gathering evidence, identifying witnesses, doing the appropriate research for the King's Bench petition and for the injunction," Mr. Mistick said.